Palestinian-Israeli clashes flare over Jerusalem holy site
Amman - Fierce battles flared at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque between worshippers and Israeli police, underscoring a profound Palestinian mistrust of Israel and threatening a spillover of violence beyond the city.
Israel insisted its forces were acting under a “security operation” but Palestinians claimed that the cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was about to divide the holy site to allow Jewish prayers there. “The plan that the Israeli government wants to put in place is frighteningly criminal,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told The Arab Weekly in a telephone interview.
“It will lead to the al-Aqsa mosque being divided up.”
At the heart of the matter is a deep distrust of the intentions of Netanyahu’s cabinet, which comprises extreme politicians who advocate throwing the Palestinians out of the West Bank — a territory they believe the Bible says is Jewish.
The Palestinians hope that traditionally Arab East Jerusalem, which houses al-Aqsa, would be the capital of their future state. But Israel’s government says it will keep parts of the West Bank and will not share East Jerusalem, although previous Israeli leaders were perceived as willing to do so.
Al-Aqsa, widely referred to in Arabic as al-Haram al-Sharif or “the noble sanctuary”, is Islam’s third holiest shrine after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. It is on a hilltop compound in Jerusalem’s walled Old City.
One of the region’s most intense flashpoints and the site of scores of previous clashes with Israeli police, the compound also houses the Dome of the Rock, which enshrines the rock from which the Prophet Mohammad is said to have ascended to heaven on a winged horse.
The site is known to Jews as the Temple Mount. It is the holiest in Judaism and is the place worshippers turn towards during prayer. According to rabbinic sages, it is the place where God gathered dust to create the first human, Adam.
Ultraorthodox Jews insist that the site is where their two revered temples are buried, just underneath al-Aqsa, and is where the third temple will be built before the messiah comes.
Jordan, a moderate Muslim country whose royal Hashemite dynasty claims ancestry to Mohammad, is the custodian of Jerusalem’s Muslim shrines. Israel recognised Jordan’s “special role” in caring for the shrines in a 1994 peace treaty, which launched diplomatic relations between the two neighbours.
On September 13th and 14th, Palestinians angry at Jews visiting the mosque, guarded by Israeli security, threw stones at police, which responded with stun grenades and tear gas.
Trouble climaxed September 15th, when Israel banned Palestinians from entering al-Aqsa for morning prayers to allow Jewish activists to tour the mosque’s courtyards, according to Youssef Mukhaimar, a member of a group of Palestinian men and women known as the Murabitun and the Murabitat, which translates as “sentinels”.
Palestinians threw stones from outside the compound’s gate and some barricaded themselves inside, prompting Israeli police to raid the courtyard and mosque building, firing stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets, according to Israeli television. Several dozen Palestinians were wounded in the fighting, which continued sporadically outside al-Aqsa through September 17th, Israeli and Palestinian officials said. They said an Israeli motorist died September 15th after being hit by stones.
That same day, a fire caused by the grenades burned carpet inside the mosque, the sentinels reported. They also said Israeli snipers had been deployed on the mosque’s roof.
An Israeli official, speaking to The Arab Weekly by telephone from Jerusalem, insisted that Israel had moved in “upon a tip of a security threat posed by some elements with explosives hiding in al-Aqsa’s vicinity”.
“We sought to secure the area ahead of the Jewish New Year”, which ended the night of September 15th, the official added, insisting on anonymity, saying he was not allowed to comment before the ongoing investigation had concluded.
However, Mukhaimar said that Israel was trying to change the rules at al-Aqsa by allowing Jews to visit five times a week and often pray in the courtyards.
Previously, Jewish payers in the courtyards were banned. The ban was reaffirmed in a November 2014 meeting between Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah II in the presence of US Secretary of State John Kerry. Traditionally, Jewish prayers have been limited to the Wailing Wall west of al-Aqsa.
Mohammed Abassi, another sentinel, said Israel “is trying to set a precedent by dividing al-Aqsa into zones and creating a schedule for prayer time to Muslims and visiting hours to Jews”.
“Simply, it’s trying to take it over by piecemeal,” he said.
The violence drew a chorus of condemnation and calls for self-restraint.
King Abdullah said Jordan would “have to take action” but did not elaborate. His information minister explained that Jordan was mulling unspecified “diplomatic and legal options”. In previous escalations, Jordan recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv.
UN Middle East envoy Nikolay Mladenov warned that al-Aqsa clashes could feed into the region’s “vicious tide of terror and extremism” and have the potential to ignite violence well beyond the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.
He urged visitors and worshippers to “demonstrate restraint and respect for the sanctity of the area”.